Pittsburghers rally to replenish one poor school's library shelves

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If it weren't for a sign on the door, it would be hard to tell that the library at Pittsburgh Manchester PreK-8 is in fact a library.

There's no rug for reading time, no comfy chairs to lounge in and the shelves lining the walls are mostly barren.

That's because it hasn't housed a librarian for years.

But when a picture of the feeble fiction section went viral -- seen by thousands and shared by hundreds -- on social media networks this week, the library's restoration received a dramatic boost.

"Several hundred books have already come in through a wish list on Amazon, and thousands more are coming in boxes," said Jessie Ramey, an education activist who helped propel a grassroots movement to donate and buy hardcover books for the school.

Sheila May-Stein, a Pittsburgh Public Schools rotating librarian, is charged with the task of rebuilding Manchester's dismal library as part of a district-wide change in this year's educational delivery model that calls for each school to have a librarian on site at least one day a week.

Manchester was among 10 schools of 59 in the district last year that did not have library services.

Last week she started combing through the school's selection of books and found boxes stacked to the ceiling in a librarian's office. Her hope was quickly dashed when she realized many of the books had pages missing and broken bindings, unlikely to survive a single checkout.

"It teaches kids they aren't worth new books," Ms. May-Stein said. "We were taking books off the shelves that were crumbling."

Feeling depressed by the situation, she took a picture of a sparse section of the fiction books and posted it to Ms. Ramey's Facebook page on Tuesday.

Ms. Ramey re-posted the picture to her blog, Yinzercation, and Facebook page with Ms. May-Stein's words about a lack of equity between the iPads and brand new books at suburban schools in comparison to children in inner-city schools like Manchester who don't have enough books to go around.

Then Ms. Ramey, whose own children attend Pittsburgh Colfax in Squirrel Hill and have a well-stocked library, called the community to action by announcing a book drive for the school.

"There are a number of us and we can do something about this and we can do something right now," Ms. Ramey said of her message. "It's pretty exciting to see something that seems so small that starts with just a photo grow so big so fast."

Thanks to tweets, retweets, status updates, shares and posts, nearly 400 books have been purchased off the Amazon wish list by community members and complete strangers.

"I put it up and boom, boom, boom, people keep buying," Ms. May-Stein said.

Boxes of books were also dropped off at the school and Ms. May-Stein's home.

The librarian predicts that the 250-student school's decaying fiction section has now grown from less than 100 usable books to more than 500.

Ms. Ramey, an American Council of Learned Societies new faculty fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the Manchester situation not only highlights a community's honorable response but also the disparity between educational opportunities in predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods and more affluent areas within the school district.

Theresa Cherry, the Manchester principal, said the school last had a librarian two days a week in the 2009-10 school year. When budgets were tightened, she had to focus on retaining core staff.

"We needed the classroom teachers," she said. "Unfortunately, the librarian becomes a numbers game at that point. I wish it weren't, but it is."

The principal said parents in the struggling North Side community don't have as much time to dedicate to parent-teaching groups, which bolster efforts at other schools when budgets force reduced services.

An unfair division of resources at the district level has also plagued the school.

"In the past we haven't gotten the same share of funding as other schools, but they're making an effort to provide equity now," she said.

Among other improvements, a new plan called "Equity: Getting to All" was introduced by the district last month and is being implemented at Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side and Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood with the aim of closing the racial achievement gap.

New requirements that each school have one day of library services are also improving the quality of education.

But some say the changes don't go far enough.

"The reality is that I'm going to build up this library and make it gorgeous and they're only going to have a librarian one day a week," Ms. May-Stein said.

With the state education budget reduced by $900 million in federal stimulus that was available in 2010-11 and not replaced by the state this year, schools can't look for additional funding.

Ebony Pugh, a spokeswoman for the district, said it's helpful when communities step in to fill in the gaps. "It shows you the power of the community, and they are valuable partners to the work that we're doing with our schools," she said.

A group of 11- to 7-year-olds in a multiple disabilities classroom taught by Fawna Wilcox were so appreciative of the new books that they made a sign and delivered it to Ms. May-Stein on Friday.

The sign read "Thank you for the new books" and was decorated with painted handprints of each of the students in Room 127.

"The Pittsburgh community is never going to see the kids come in with a sign thanking them for books," said Ms. May-Stein. "But they still give, it's incredible."

To donate hardcover books to Pittsburgh Manchester PreK-8 via the Amazon wish list, visit: www.amazon.com/gp/registry/registry.html?ie=UTF8&id=3TJQMRAWAHM3U&type=wishlist.

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Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com.


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